Fifty-one years after their first motorcycle land-speed record, Triumph have returned to Utah with an extraordinary machine – the 1,000-brake horsepower Triumph Infor Rocket Streamliner – and an equally extraordinary rider, Guy Martin. Avaunt joined Belstaff for the ride.
Roughly 30,000 years ago a giant lake, bigger than Switzerland or Denmark, covered a giant swathe of North America’s Great Basin region. Lake Bonneville lasted for 15,000 years, give or take, before drying up completely, and one of the only signs it ever existed is a vast salt pan in Tooele County, Utah.
Too harsh an environment for plants or animals to survive, the Bonneville Salt Flats turned out to provide – in the summer months at least – the perfect pan-flat, dust-free runway for motorsport, and with nothing to bump into for nearly 40,000 acres, it became the spiritual home of straight-line land-speed record attempts from the early 20th century to the present day.
The salt flats hosted their first two-wheeled world record in 1965, with Texan motorcyclist Johnny Allen setting a top speed of 193.73mph on his Triumph Devil’s Arrow streamliner – a fully faired recumbent motorbike, which the rider sits in, rather than on, in a near-prone position for maximum aerodynamic benefit. Triumph continued to hold the absolute motorcycle land-speed world record until 1970, and the British manufacturer was quick to capitalise on the record’s iconic appeal, with the first T120 Bonneville model revealed at the Earl’s Court Bike Show and going on sale in 1959.
From the 1970s until the present day, the record changed hands several times between rival Japanese and American machines, and Triumph Motorcycles have finally returned to the same stretch of the Bonneville Salt Flats with the intention of restoring their standing in land-speed racing. Their latest machine, the Triumph Infor Rocket Streamliner, is nearly as long as a Routemaster bus but only three feet tall, and its two turbocharged, methanol-fuelled Triumph Rocket III engines can direct 1,000 brake horsepower through its rear tyre – more power than a contemporary Formula One car. Masterminded by aerodynamic engineer Matt Markstaller and high-performance engine builder Bob Carpenter, the team needed a suitably bold rider to take on the measured mile, and settled on the British Isle of Man TT racer and multiple speed record holder, Guy Martin.
Strapped into the Rocket’s carbon Kevlar monocoque shell – with his feet in front of him – by a seven-point harness, and steering with two joysticks rather than a single handlebar, Martin made a number of progressively faster runs in the team’s August practice session at the Bonneville Salt Flats, finally achieving a speed of 274.2mph (and in doing so set the record for the world’s fastest-ever Triumph motorcycle), before heavy rainfall in September forced an end to their attempt for this year. And while the outright record of 376.4mph eluded the challengers, Martin seemed reanimated by the effort and the adrenaline that riding a motorbike at nearly 300mph had entailed. “It felt like I’d got back to how it was when I first started racing. I’d lost that. I hadn’t had that feeling for 10 years now.”
Triumph have vowed to return as soon as conditions allow.
This is an excerpt from issue 4 of Avaunt, on newsstands from 31st October 2016. Subscribe to Avaunt here.